Common-Good Conservativism

If conservatives love the free market, they need to make sure it works for everyone.

Dennis Sanders
Mar 7, 2020 · 13 min read

As a creature of the center-right, I believe the free market can be harnessed to benefit society. I saw this in action in 1999 in the city of Kunming, China, a city in the Western part of the world’s most populated nation. I saw a city in the midst of rapid change. The streets are clogged with Western autos like Jeeps and Audis as well as homemade jalopies spewing out fumes. Skyscrapers are going up like crazy. Stores are filled with western items.

China had long been considered a poor nation, but it was developing rapidly. It was interesting to see how China, which was considered a poor country, was changing massively. I concluded, even though China was and is an authoritarian society, the free market was making a difference among millions those who moved from poverty into the middle class. China is now a rising economic power, bypassing Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

A market economy can make changes for the better in society. But the free market is not infallible. For many reasons, there are times when the benefits of the market only go to a few. Or market forces can cause havoc on a certain area or industry.

While I favor the free market, I am also the son of two autoworkers who were strong union members. Before it became known for the water crisis, my hometown of Flint, Michigan was known as a factory town. Flint was the birthplace of General Motors and in the 20th century, it became the company town. Flint became synonymous with GM, and there were GM factories dotting the Flint area. Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, it was common to see car carriers filled with Buicks or Chevys heading to dealerships across the nation. During that same period, the number of people working for GM was about 80,000 and the population of the city was near 200,000 people.

Then things changed. There were massive changes happening in the economy that would send Flint and other cities in the Rust Belt spinning downward. Factories became more efficient, meaning fewer people were needed. It became cheaper to build cars in places like Mexico than it was in the U.S. The dominance of the Big Three automakers ended as the gas crises of the ’70s hit and Americans were looking for more fuel-efficient cars started buying Hondas and Toyotas. The result in Flint was that GM closed factory after factory until, today, there were about 8,000 people working for GM and the city’s population is now less than 100,000.

Journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn write in a moving opinion piece about how the loss of manufacturing had affected one family in Oregon. The two reporters share what they think happened to the American working class over the last half-century when the jobs left and it sounds pretty familiar to me:

In the 1970s and ’80s it was common to hear derogatory suggestions that the forces ripping apart African-American communities were rooted in “black culture.” The idea was that “deadbeat dads,” self-destructive drug abuse and family breakdown were the fundamental causes, and that all people needed to do was show “personal responsibility.”

A Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, countered that the true underlying problem was lost jobs, and he turned out to be right. When good jobs left white towns like Yamhill a couple of decades later because of globalization and automation, the same pathologies unfolded there. Men in particular felt the loss not only of income but also of dignity that accompanied a good job. Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable. Family structure collapsed.

It would be easy but too simplistic to blame just automation and lost jobs: The problems are also rooted in disastrous policy choices over 50 years. The United States wrested power from labor and gave it to business, and it suppressed wages and cut taxes rather than invest in human capital, as our peer countries did. As other countries embraced universal health care, we did not; several counties in the United States have life expectancies shorter than those in Cambodia or Bangladesh.

Markets can do good things and it can do bad things. Kristoff and WuDunn believe both parties are to blame for the state of the American working class. Since the late 1970s, conservatives operated under what I call the “Reagan consensus”: low taxes and low regulation. It has been what every Senator, Governor and Presidential candidate ran on. But while politicians were talking about the latest tax cuts things were changing among the Republican electorate. The party became less and less a party of the country club and more of the party of Sam’s Club. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat were aware of these changes and wrote Grand New Party in 2008 laying out how the GOP could become a party of America’s working class. Their suggestions weren’t considered. The 2016 GOP presidential primary showed voters were no longer interested in this consensus. They wanted something beyond low taxes. Donald Trump spoke in a way that many working families felt he understood them.

Picking up where Salam and Douthat left off, a number of conservatives are starting to think the rewards of the free market are not being felt by everyone. None of these people are advocating for socialism, but they are wondering if what has passed for conservative economics over the last 30 or 40 years has run its course. Senator Marco Rubio and Oren Cass, an outgoing fellow at the Manhattan Institute, are the two leading proponents of this new take on the economy and how conservatives should best respond. Rubio expressed his view on the economy with a speech at Catholic University last fall on what he calls “Common Good Capitalism.” Rubio based Common Good Catholicism from Rerum Novarum, an 1891 Catholic Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. In that letter, Pope Leo writes about care for the poor and the workers and speaking against the rise of socialism. Writing in the National Review, he describes what Common Good Capitalism is all about:

What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism: a system of free enterprise wherein workers fulfill their obligation to work and enjoy the resultant benefits, and businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough to create high-productivity jobs, which is what I mean by dignified work for Americans.

Common-good capitalism also means recognizing that what the market determines is most efficient may not be best for America. For example, we’ve allowed ourselves to become almost completely dependent on China for rare-earth minerals and done nothing to further our ability to provide them for ourselves. That’s why I have filed legislation to support investment in this critical sector.

Cass, who was a policy advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign, shared his thoughts in The Once and Future Worker which was summarized in an article for the American Interest. In that article, Cass surmises that GDP or a nation of consumers, can’t be the sole marker of a thriving society:

In making GDP growth and rising consumption the central objectives of public policy, economic piety represents a truncated and ultimately self-undermining concept of prosperity. Workers have no standing in this view of the economy; neither do their families or communities. Households that see their economic prospects plummet or their livelihoods vanish should ask for a government check and be placated when they get one. Towns that can no longer sustain themselves become places that people should just leave. Politicians will pay lip service to the importance of education and retraining, but they will not hold themselves accountable for such programs actually working. The economic pie’s expansion, regardless of what or who gets left behind, is the goal; maintaining a healthy, inclusive society is a hoped-for by-product, not an end in itself.

Neither Cass nor Rubio are advocating for the end of capitalism. Both promote ideas that have not been considered by conservatives before if ever, but they aren’t calling for revolution. But you wouldn’t know that from how a number of conservative responders answered. Cass gets the lion share of the criticism and he tends to give back as much as they dish out. Most of them seem to think he is leading conservatism to do something that is…unconservative.

But challenging a consensus is going to cause friction and many conservative commentators replied. National Review writer David French wrote a response in early 2019 where the gist of the message is that although the market isn’t perfect, French worries this makes the working class into victims and weakening personal responsibility. The message from those who disagree Cass or Rubio seems to be this: things are fine and if the working class is in trouble, it is their own fault. That is what David French appears to be saying in his 2019 post:

Yes, we need public officials to do their best to create and sustain a government most conducive to human flourishing, but the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals. In fact, it is still true that your choices are far more important to your success than any government program or the actions of any nefarious banker or any malicious feminist.

It is a simple fact, that when people make bad choices, there are a cascade of negative effects that follow. The extraordinarily difficult challenge of public policy is considering how to mitigate the effects of those mistakes and providing pathways to overcoming bad decisions.

But the one conservative commentator that has responded to this issue over and over again has been Jonah Goldberg. If you want to see someone get riled up about this issue, it would be Goldberg. He still believes in the Reagan consensus and is bothered by the talk of free-market fundamentalism. His most recent article is an iteration of the same argument:

I keep hearing people say or imply that libertarians and free-market “fundamentalists” have been running the show in Washington. I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about — and neither do any libertarians I know. In fairness to Cass, he doesn’t make the barmy claim that Washington has been run by libertarians, just the slightly less barmy claim that the Republican party has been. I still have no idea what he’s talking about — and, again, neither do any libertarians I know.

To his credit, I think it is too simplistic to say that libertarians are to blame. They are kind of the whipping post that everyone can blame for all of our problems. More on that in a moment. What bothers Goldberg is that Cass and Rubio and other conservatives making these arguments are basically aping liberals and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren:

What vexes me about the rhetoric of Cass’s project — and that of so many conservatives these days — is that they are simply mimicking the rhetorical tactics of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, not to mention, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Croly, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, et al. Now these conservatives are making it bipartisan: Our real, biggest, problems stem from our refusal to regulate capitalism enough — or at all.

But that leaves you wondering: are conservatives suppose to love the market so much that it can never be questioned? How does one respond to the people Kristof and WuDunn describe? What about the people living in places like Flint or Youngstown? Is any consideration of the working class too “liberal?”

French, Goldberg and others tend to focus on Cass’ pointing the finger at libertarians and I think it is too easy to blame libertarians (I myself tend to call myself libertarian-ish). But by focusing on the libertarian slur, they ignore the larger problem: how is conservatism helping or not helping the working class? How are their beliefs being tested in real life? Are they aware of how the working class is faring (which is, not well)?

I know French, Goldberg, and others are not being intentionally heartless — personal responsibility has been a hallmark of conservative thinking. There are many cases where people end up in circumstances due to their own poor choices. However, when it comes to the poor and working-class regardless of color or background, the belief is that it is all on you and in reality, people are not separated from their environment. If you live in an area where good-paying jobs are no longer available and what’s left are poor paying jobs, you will make choices based on the climate or at least it will factor in greatly.

Pope Leo wrote Rerum Novarum during a time when workers were exploited by their employers. Socialism was offered as an answer, where the State took over the means of production and private property. Pope Leo wanted to show a different way. Pope Leo was hardly a revolutionary, he was trying to find a third way that provided dignity to workers without abolishing private property. Cass, Rubio and others in many ways are picking up what Pope Leo started over a century ago.

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, writes while the GDP has grown throughout the last two decades and people can buy cheaper goods like the proverbial flat-screen television, he evokes President Ronald Reagan’s line by asking if consumers think they are better off than they were 20 years ago. The answer, for Vance, is no.

In a 2019 essay, Vance asks if companies should have some concern about the social fabric:

What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Ronald Reagan was not in favor of big government, but he still believed that government had a role in safeguarding the commonwealth. He speaks in ways that sound like Pope Leo in talking about the dignity of the person. Henry Olsen wrote in the 2017 book Working Class Republican, we learn that Reagan was a “New Deal conservative”, someone who was reconciled to the fact that the New Deal was designed so that “the primacy of human dignity sanctions government help for those who need it.” But Reagan’s message has been corrupted over the years, morphing from a small government conservatism to a seemingly anti-government tone.

Human dignity is a conservative value and has been for decades. The question we should ask today is how is modern conservatism guarding the dignity of the common person today? On some level, not very well. Some conservatives and libertarians will tell people to take a job even if it pays less. On the whole, that is a good idea, but what if that job pays less than your last one? Your bills don’t go down if you get a lower-paying job. Others will say that singles and families should move to areas where there are jobs. OK, but this also isn’t so easy. Do you move without a job? Do people have the money to move to a new place? Will they find a good-paying job once they get there? (The whole move to find work didn’t work so well in The Grapes of Wrath.)

The funny thing is that a number of the critics don’t ask of people on the other end of the political spectrum — the bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity firms — who make decisions that affect thousands who work for them. Should we not say something about the bankers who sold people loans they knew people would never pay back? Should hedge fund managers like Eddie Lampert — the former CEO of Sears who trashed the company, shut down stores leaving remaining stores in disarray, causing many to lose their jobs and who very well might walk away from Sears not losing one cent — be blamed? What about the private equity firm that loaded Toys “R” Us up with debt and then liquidated without paying severance of the thousands of employees who were now jobless? Somehow conservatives are quick to tell the poor and working-class that they are responsible for their lives, but the rich have no obligation at all.

The question Vance asks is an important one: “What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric?” The center-right of the early 21st century talks about individual rights and the importance of the family, and the dignity of the unborn. But it says little about the importance of communities, neighborhoods, and those civic institutions that are the heartbeat of our nation.

This is why Carlson’s rant matters. I get that he is an incredibly imperfect voice on this issue, but he is bringing this out in the open. He is asking what makes for a flourishing society and many people are now saying that the conservative movement and the GOP are not promoting that flourishing society.

Conservatives and libertarians are right to see how markets can lift people out of poverty and into a better life. It can lead to a flourishing society. But, it is only a tool, not an end in and of itself. Sometimes that tool works, but sometimes it doesn’t or it doesn’t work as well as it should. So to bring us to the end of a flourishing society we have to consider what other tools can get us there.

If the center-right is to be more than the grunts of people like Trump, it has to be a party willing to see the market in its proper place and reorient ourselves towards a new end in what makes a society great.

This means that our dynamic economy has to be countered with government to ameliorate the downsides. Conservatives hear the word “government” and think about large programs like the U.K.’s National Health Service or some kind of job guarantee program. That is not what is needed.

There is no need for large programs and a government that crowds out the civic sector. Instead, we need a limited, but active government that crafts policies that reward work without disparaging the market or free trade. Oren Cass and Abby McCloskey show how government can be used to reward and empower work through conservative policy. That means creating a policy that would give some focus on trade and vocational training. It means transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into something more like a work subsidy that provides the money more immediately than waiting for the beginning of the new year. It would also mean developing trade policies that would ameliorate the effects of free trade though programs that help workers find new careers.

Libertarianism is not the problem here. What is needed is to develop a conservative economic policy for the 21 st century that will pay attention and lift up the working class and not sell a policy that worked 40 years ago. If the free market is to thrive in America, attention must be paid to the working class. We can’t ignore this issue much longer.


A Center-Right, Neoliberal Publication for the Politically…

Dennis Sanders

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism.


A Center-Right, Neoliberal Publication for the Politically Homeless.

Dennis Sanders

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism.


A Center-Right, Neoliberal Publication for the Politically Homeless.

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